Saturday, September 20, 2014

A New Study: Mindfulness for Mothers of Severely Disabled Children ...

Mindfulness is like that - it is a miracle which can call 
back in a flash our dispersed mind and restore it
to wholeness
so that we can live each minute of life.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Are you caring for a child with severe disabilities? Family caregiving can be hard work at the best of times but caregiving for a child or adult child with a severe disability takes an extra toll. Mothers of children with autism or other neurodevelopmental disabilities report high levels of stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, chronic sorrow, depression, and anxiety, all of which can have an impact on your wellness and resilience and on the way you care for your child.

A new study in the journal Pediatrics suggests that both mindfulness and positive psychology techniques can help to reduce your stress. Researcher, Elisabeth Dykens, and her colleagues randomly assigned 243 mothers to a six-week group treatment program employing either mindfulness techniques like deep-belly breathing or to a group using positive psychology exercises focused on building virtues like gratitude and patience. Trained mentors who also had children with disabilities led the weekly hour-and-a-half sessions. The mothers completed mental health assessments before, during and up to six months after the study. 

Before the study, 85% of the mothers reported significant levels of stress. Forty-one percent suffered from anxiety disorders and forty-eight percent were diagnosed as clinically depressed. (Chronic sorrow was not assessed perhaps altering the number seen as depressed.) 

In the mindfulness group, mentors used the Mindfulness-Bassed Stress Reduction Program (MBSR) developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn to teach breathing awareness, movement and meditation techniques. The specific techniques taught included breathing exercises, self-observation without self-judgement, loving-kindness meditation and Qigong (an ancient Chinese health care system integrating gentle movement, breathing techniques and focused attention) among others.

The positive psychology group learned techniques for dealing with feelings of guilt, worry, and pessimism. The techniques included exercises for identifying character strengths and fostering gratitude, forgiveness, grace and optimism.

Both treatments worked. Participants reported fewer feelings of anxiety and depression and fewer unhealthy parent-child interactions. Mothers slept better and experienced greater life satisfaction during and after the six week groups.  Some continued to improve over time.

Some differences were also noted in the effectiveness of the two groups. The mindfulness group showed more immediate improvement in anxiety, depression and insomnia, possibly due to the immediacy of the autonomic nervous system shift from fight-flight-freeze response to relaxation response. The positive psychology group, on the other hand, took longer to show results but the improvements in life satisfaction and depression were greater.

The study concluded that because both groups saw significant improvement, programs integrating both meditation and positive psychology should be developed.

I think this study provides evidence of a hopeful and practical means of calming the nervous systems of family caregivers, building resilience and improving quality of life. But many of you will look at it and say, "So, who has time to fit this into my already crowded day?!" And you will be right. Few caregivers can "find" the time for new practices like these. It will be more a matter of "carving out" time - giving up something else in order to make room, doing two things at once (eg meditating for the 20 minutes it takes to cook your potatoes), or asking a friend to be with your child as you practice.) However you do it, I think the benefits of adding practices like these to your life might just be worth a try...

*** Caveat:

Please remember that there are those who should not practice mindfulness meditation without first being assessed by their family physician or therapist. They include those who:

  • have a history of mental illness or posttraumatic stress
  • with thoughts of suicide
  • misuse alcohol or other drugs
  • are in the first year of addiction recovery
  • are troubled by trauma triggers
  • have difficulty maintaining a strong sense of self when quiet or alone.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Rhythms of Nature ...


The summer ends and it is time
to face another way.

Wendel Berry

Hi everyone!

It's a beautiful autumn day here in Vancouver - warm and sunny but with a edge to the breeze that reminds me of cooler days to come. This week, I've been taking an online course on the relationship between nature and spirituality and I was struck by this description of the rhythm of the seasons:

When we pay attention to the rhythm of the seasons we learn a great deal about the rise and fall of life, about emptiness and fullness. Spring invites us to blossom forth, summer calls us to our own ripening, autumn demands that we release and let go, and winter quietly whispers to us to rest, to sink into the dark fertile space of unknowing, releasing the demands of productivity and calendars and to do lists and to simply be.
                                                                                                      Christine Paintner

I don't know about you, but that's not the normal pattern of things for me. Autumn and winter are far more likely to be times of compressed do-ing than quiet be-ing. And yet, what a gift we would give to our spirits and bodies if we could follow the natural rhythms of nature and allow a time of fallow, a period of rest that restores our ability to bear fruit.

What if the fall and winter months brought with them an invitation to be less busy, to move inward to a time of quiet, introspection and re-creation?  What if we decided to hibernate, to restrict our kids to a single outside activity per season, said no to recreational screen time and graciously refused a few of our social invitations. What if we made more time for quiet reading, conversation, long walks in the woods and hot drinks by the fire? What if there was sufficient spaciousness for deep reflection, heart connection and even the odd nap?

Now, for some of us, a season of surrender and hibernation could be terrifying. I heard in a CBC radio interview this week that someone had done a study offering participants the choice between a mild electric shock and the boredom of fifteen minutes in a quiet environment and a large percentage actually preferred the electric shock! Are we becoming a society hooked on busyness and stimulation? Perhaps a return to the patterns of nature might allow us to shift our nervous systems back from chronic sympathetic ("flight or flight") arousal to a calmer relaxation response.

I wonder which season would describe your life experience this fall? Are you in sync with the natural flow? Can you be? What (if anything) might you want to change to create a closer parallel between your life and the seasonal rhythm?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Summer Harvest: Or What I (Re)Learned On Summer Vacation ...

Hello, everyone!

I'm back from an unexpectedly busy summer and enjoying the quickening of heart and mind that always seems to accompany this time of year. As the days of summer shorten and I gear up for fall workshops, I find myself reflecting upon the things I've learned (or re-learned) this summer -  the fruits of my summer harvest.

1.  Remember to rest: 

This year's vacation began with two wonderful weeks at Kahshe Lake in northern Ontario. There, my body relaxed and I was reminded, once again, of the importance of rest and respite. Sitting on the deck, doing nothing, wrapped in the piney fragrance of sun-warmed trees is one of the most restorative things I can imagine and yet I can lose track of my need for this deep rest once I move into the busyness of the teaching season.

This year, I've decided to build rest days into the calendar in advance. On these days, I will stay at home by the fire, be silent, avoid screen and phone time, eat pre-prepared meals, perhaps read bits of poetry or fiction, and mostly, just rest. (I did learn this lesson more than ten years ago when my husband was ill but it seems that it takes intentionality and commitment to remember to use it during my busiest times.)

Perhaps you'd like to join me in honouring our universal need for rest and re-creation this fall? If your life won't accommodate a full rest day, perhaps a half day, or a couple of hours, or 30 minutes every morning or a 10 minute power nap in the afternoon would be a place to start ...? The important thing is to choose what works for you and then protect the time to do it.

2. Recommit to a spiritual practice:

As I've said elsewhere, most people believe that we have a spiritual life to tend as well as physical and psychological ones. After a very full late summer with considerable family caregiving and much writing, I found that I had lost the rhythm of two of my much-needed spiritual practices. I was falling asleep during (or sleeping right through) my early morning meditation/prayer time and I was skipping my treasured walks at the lake. (Not a good sign when fall's busyness hadn't yet begun!) Fortunately, I was able to get some rest, and with rest came the desire to refocus on this vital piece of self-care.

Research tells us that developing and maintaining a regular spiritual practice is important for our wellbeing if we want to work with people who are traumatized. Spiritual practice creates space - space for healing and transformation and space for building resilience. Whether you meditate, practice centering prayer, commune with nature, write a gratitude journal, read inspirational writings, dance or sing, or practice a nightly examen, consciously attending to your spiritual life can go a long way toward mitigating compassion fatigue.

If you have had a regular spiritual practice in the past but have let it slip away, why not consider beginning again this fall? First, take some time to consider why you are not practicing now. Has your life changed? Did you become bored with the practice? Was it not a good fit in the first instance?  Once you know why you stopped, begin again or do some exploring to discover new possibilities. Be sure to choose a practice congruent with both your personality and your current life circumstances.

As I re-learned when I returned to my regular practices last week, taking the time to deepen your spiritual life positively affects every other aspect of your being.

3.  Make heart connections with supportive people:

Isolation is both a source and consequence of compassion fatigue. When we hide painful emotional responses to our work, either in the name of strength and stoicism or because there's no energy left to connect with our support systems, we increase the likelihood of being traumatized. And when we become traumatized, we are likely to isolate and hide our trauma for all the same reasons. Isolation becomes entwined in the experience of compassion fatigue and healing involves connecting or reconnecting with loving, responsive supporters.

I felt a measure of this isolation recently, first as I supported an elderly friend for five weeks following emergency surgery and then, as I companioned extended family following a loved one's life-threatening post-transplant lung infection. In the days before I knew about compassion fatigue, I might have spiralled into a state of exhaustion and depletion. Fortunately, these days I can recognize when my early warning signs are saying, "Enough!"  One of those early warning signs is realizing that I haven't had contact with anyone on my KIT (Keeping In Touch) List.

My husband introduced me to the idea of keeping a KIT list. He kept a list of 6 or 8 good friends front-and-centre on his desk and committed to contacting each one at least once a month so that his important relationships could be regularly nourished. Sometimes, he wrote them "proper letters" with envelopes and stamps; sometimes they had coffee or lunch; sometimes they went for walks, hikes or a bike rides; and sometimes they just enjoyed short or protracted phone conversations. The point was that he was intentional about having regular heart-to-heart connection with people who mattered to him. It is this kind of connection that reduces stress and protects both our physical and emotional health. If the idea appeals to you, why not give it a try?

So, these are a few of the summer's lessons for me. What about you? What has been your summer harvest?